Last week I finished reading Suzanna Clarke’s incredible novel Piranesi (2020). I will keep this article spoiler-free because I think you should read this book, and it is honestly best if you go into it knowing nothing about it.
I will not give away any of the details of the plot in this article, but if you have not read it yet I would urge you to read the novel first – knowing nothing at all – and come back here afterwards.
What I want to dig into is not Suzanna Clarke’s Piranesi, but the real-life Piranesi whose name is given to the protagonist, and indeed title, of the novel. You learn in the novel that the moniker ‘Piranesi’ is not our protagonist’s real name but a nickname.
I think that if you have some awareness of who Piranesi was, this will enrich your experience in the world of the book. I know I wish I had bothered to look this up before finishing the story!
Piranesi the novel: A Few Thoughts!
Many reviewers have made connections between Piranesi and our collective experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic; which saw us all trapped inside our own houses and being forced to live a more simple, contained life through 2020-2021. Though this did not strike me while I was reading (in 2022, in the UK we’re well past lockdowns) I can see the threads of this when I reflect back on it.
Piranesi and Isolation: A Brief Analysis
Some people struggled with life grinding to a halt in the lockdowns, but as a hardcore introvert, this was not my experience.
I am extremely lucky to have been able to easily transition from my office-based job to working from home. I also lived alone. So I loved having permission to stay inside my flat; not having to deal with the crowds commuting to the office, and being able to work from home quietly in my own space and time.
For a brief period, at the height of the lockdown in the UK, you could go outside and not be able to hear any traffic… The noise of the modern world stopped for a time, and it was so peaceful.
Piranesi takes a similar view that there can be peace in isolation. The Piranesi of the novel may be a little lonely at times but life in The House is simple. Free of external influences and stresses, he is content to spend his days on basic survival tasks. He is present, mindful and connected to his environment. He never seems to be unhappy.
In this Guardian interview Suzanne Clarke talks about chronic illness (pre-pandemic) leading to her own isolation, and the influence this experience has had on the novel
“It was the growing sense that just because you are physically confined you needn’t be living an impoverished life.”
A Brief Book Review – No Spoilers!
I wanted to touch on the above in this article because I believe it is why Piranesi has resonated with me so much, and why it is a rare novel that will stick with me. It is also a very readable book, with nice short chapters and it’s not too long so it never drags!
The context for The House and how our Piranesi came to be there is a mystery to slowly unravel. I loved this. In the beginning, you have no context for the slightly strange journal entries that you are reading. This effectively builds the otherworldly feeling of both The House and our Piranesi, and makes it more thrilling when words from “our world” are dropped in.
In the final portion, as the puzzle pieces started to slide into place, I was completely gripped – my poor boyfriend was ignored all morning!
It is a beautiful book – and I will not say more because it is all the better if you go in knowing nothing.
The one thing I wish I had known was who the real Piranesi was because that would have given me much more to work with in constructing the image I held of The House in my imagination.
Who is Piranesi?
You’re going to have to read the novel to find out the answer to that mystery but I do want to explore why the name Piranesi is significant, and why The Other (and Suzanna Clarke) chose that nickname for our protagonist.
I had never heard this name before, and given that The House very much feels like an ancient labyrinth, I assumed it was probably the name of an obscure mythical Greek or Roman character. But no, Piranesi was a real person.
What is Piranesi famous for?
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born in 1720 in Venice and moved to Rome in his twenties to study, eventually settling there. He did declare himself to be an architect but he did not create many real-life buildings, though was prolific on paper. He is best known for his artworks, prints and etchings, many of which were incredibly detailed depictions of otherworldly and ancient realms.
He had a fascination with antiquity and his favourite mediums were etching and printmaking. Both of these techniques, considered old-fashioned even at the time, give these works an added feeling of history and past despite many of their depictions only existing within his own imagination.
He gained notoriety across Europe through his success in selling images of Rome to wealthy travellers out on the Grand Tour. He would sell them prints of fantastic ancient places they had never really been to, as proof for the people back home of how cultured and enlightened they were. This also contributed to the popularity and fame of Rome as a destination. Isn’t it good to know that social posing was still possible in the centuries before Instagram and Facebook?
What is Giovanni Piranesi’s most famous work?
Arguably his most famous work today is his c1745 series The Imaginary Prisons (Le Carceri d’Invenzion). This was 16 plates of etchings that depict a strange, eerie maze-like world full of angles, shadows, staircases, bridges and arches that appear to lead nowhere but also into an infinite space
Some of the engravings feature distant figures being tortured but some are empty. All unsettling and oppressive, yet vast and dreamlike at the same time. You can view some of the images here through Getty Images.
They are very weird and very cool.
How does Piranesi’s art inspire the novel?
If you have read the book (or even just the first couple of chapters) all you need to do is see the image below to understand where Clarke was drawing inspiration when she dreamt up The House that Piranesi (the novel) is set in.
Isn’t this incredible?
The House is not quite so dark and nightmarish (the novel is not in the horror genre!), but we can see the influence of the endless rooms, archways and staircases and the grand ornate natures and statues that populate the halls. There is an overwhelming sense that you’re looking into a different realm than the world that we know.
What else has Piranesi inspired?
You’re probably looking at the above image and also thinking of many other more modern pieces of art that could have been inspired by this dark, gothic and otherworldly aesthetic.
Escher (1898-1972) and his infinite staircases have taken obvious influence, but also video games (the Bandai Namco ‘Souls’ Series (Demon Souls/Dark Souls) comes to my mind) and novels (apparently Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum) and movies.
‘It is not just that he is an ancestor of archaeologists, archivists or even architects; it is that he is an ancestor of those who create dream and nightmare worlds’Architectural review
I hope you learned something new from reading today, if you enjoyed this article I’d love it if you shared it with your friends! Or, if you have read Piranesi or are familiar with Giovanni Piranesi please share a comment below!
- Lisa Allardice, Susanna Clarke: ‘I’d really ceased to think of myself as a writer’, The Guardian, 21 September 2021.
- Cameron Laux, The mysterious appeal of a labyrinth, BBC, 19th November 2020.
- Ankhi Mukherjee, A Labyrinth for Our Time, Public Books, 25th February 2021.
- Darran Anderson, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), The Architectural Review, 2nd July 2018.
- Jon Altdorfer, Inside A Fantastical Mind, Carnegie Online, 2010.
- Ethan Davidson, “Piranesi” Is a Portal Fantasy for People Who Know There’s No Way Out, Electric Literature, 16th September 2020.
- The Gothic Arch | Works of Art | RA Collection, The Royal Academy of Art.